200-year-old mistake corrected after ‘suspicious’ details emerge about common Aussie plant

One plant, two names. A leading Aussie researcher discovered the British had made a major error over two centuries ago.

 A sample of Leucopogon biflora plant found in northwest NSW.
Pictured is the "type" Robert Brown described as Leucopogon biflorus. It matched plants found in northwest NSW (pictured) and Queensland, but not in Sydney. Source: Natural History Museum London/Michael Dahlstrom

A mistake made by a British botanist who sailed to Australia to collect and name plants has been corrected 200 years after it was made. The discovery has prompted a confession from modern experts that there are likely dozens of similar errors yet to be discovered.

“It happens quite a lot. Normally, there’s not a 200-year lag before someone works it out,” plant expert Tony Bean told Yahoo News.

Bean noticed the problem while examining a species of a common flowering shrub that flourishes across forests in Queensland and NSW. He found that back in 1810 when the plant was described, samples collected from one species were accidentally given two names.

After looking through historical records, he's confident he knows why the error was made. And he's published a long-overdue correction in the Australian Journal of Taxonomy in June, 2024.

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The mistake occurred in 1810 when Scotsman Robert Brown described seven new species from the Leucopogon family in the Sydney area — all of which look extremely similar.

But 214 years later, when Bean re-examined Brown’s records he found something “suspicious” about one of the seven — Leucopogon biflorus. “There are no other records of it growing anywhere near Sydney,” he said, adding that the the closest occurrence is 400km away near Dubbo.

Leucopogon biflora in close-up is shown to the left and Leucopogon setigera is on the right.
Leucopogon biflorus (left) and Leucopogon setigera (right) are similar in appearance. Source: iNaturalist/Kerry240/sapphfire

Concerned by the anomaly, Bean set about looking for an image of Brown’s specimen, kept in the vaults of the Natural History Museum in London. He was “surprised” to discover his description of the plant and a high resolution image of the plant Brown studied did not match.

"It's been puzzling as to why someone didn't find it out earlier. I guess it's easier to find images online now. Ten or 20 years ago those images weren't available and you'd have to borrow the physical specimen and have it sent over from London or Paris," Bean concluded.

The orginal Leucopogon biflorus samples collected in 1810, known in biology as the “holotype” or "type" clearly came from the same species of plant Brown named Leucopogon setiger. Bean is pretty sure he knows why Brown's mix-up occurred.

“In this case, the type of Leucopogon setiger only had immature flowers — just the buds. And also, I think it was taken from quite a young plant, maybe having its first flowering,” he said.

“Whereas the type of Leucopogon biflorus was good quality, had full flowers, and mature foliage. That's why I think the mistake was made in the first place.”

In the following decades, other botanists applied the name Leucopogon biflorus and its synonym Styphelia biflorus to plant specimens they came across outside of Sydney, including northwest across the Liverpool Plains.

And to botanists the two plants are nothing alike — Bean noticed differences in the leaves, stalks, and flowers. "They're like chalk and cheese," he said.

This meant Bean couldn't solve Brown's error by simply combining Leucopogon biflorus and Leucopogon setiger into one. "The species that for many years has been recognised under the name Leucopogon biflorus is distinct and warrants recognition," Bean wrote in his paper.

And because our understanding of plants has improved over the last 200 years, Bean realised he couldn't keep the name Leucopogon biflorus because it was now understood to belong to a different genus.

To clear up the problem, Bean cancelled the name Styphelia biflorus, and its synonym Styphelia biflora, and reverted to a different name for the plant — Styphelia sparsa.

Bean is a senior Botanist at the Queensland Herbarium in Brisbane, his paper was published under the title The demise of Styphelia biflora.

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